Can Biden Redefine American Leadership amid International Tensions?

Some IR scholars argue that in the next few years there might be a dozen powers that will be substitutes for the current single-power world and the end of the United States’ hegemony will give way to the surge of several regional centers. In my view, this is an argument with a long history, and it has yet to happen.  I do not rule it out, but think that it is still some decades off.  So long as the U.S. is able to mobilize massive military power, to sustain the international role of the dollar, wield its technological prowess and remain a center of popular culture, it will remain hegemonic.  

The American World Order is anchored by the central role of the dollar in the global economy.  So long as the U.S. can get others to accept dollar and believe they will remain an enduring store of monetary value, a new “global order” will not emerge.  But any country that decides to dump their dollars has trouble remaining engaged in the global order (attempts to create new reserve currencies have met with only limited success).  Maybe a centralized cyber-order run by the big tech companies?

The one wild card in all of this is the fragmentation of the United States, which I think is a very real possibility.  Then, the multipolar world will come to pass. So, I believe that domestic political conflict—and even civil war–is liable to be the key factor in the future demise of this order.

It does not look as though Biden administration is going to (re)define American “leadership.”  Since his political survival depends on domestic politics, he is not about to do or say anything that allows his opponents to attack him for being “soft” or threatening U.S. “security”—what Ukraine has to do with U.S. security, by the way, is lost on me.  Ukraine has never been fully sovereign so why does that matter so much now?

Have you noticed that American diplomacy has largely been moved from the State Department to the Department of Defense?  On the one hand, the Joint Chiefs of Staff do not like to deploy ground forces abroad, so military interventions may become less common (it’s not Defense that’s driving the crisis over Ukraine).  On the other hand, that leaves economic sanctions on governments that offend Washington.  I know that Iran has suffered mightily from Western sanctions, mostly at the behest of the United States, but I don’t see that those sanctions have led the U.S. to succeed in it objectives toward Iran. 

Given that the historical conditions and specific political factors that gave rise to Cold War policies and institutions have vanished, there is a question “what purpose does NATO serve today?” to answer, I suppose that apparently, those policies and institutions have not really vanished (the current brinksmanship over Ukraine).  NATO has become a provocation to Russia; with good reason, having expanded willy-nilly into Eastern Europe.  I imagine the NATO high command is pulling out its Cold War plans for war with the Soviet Union, to see whether they still might work.  I don’t think NATO can play much role in Asia, if it comes to outright conflict. If violence breaks out over Ukraine and escalates, I imagine China will ally with Russia.  But I’m not sure what Russia and China would gain from an alliance with Iran.

I think the impact of the rise of China, in particular, is to put the fear of its potential influence in the hearts of Western policymakers.  And if China really asserts its regional influence, there could well be a clash with the United States.  Back in the 1980s, there was a lot of talk about how Japan was a “rising power” that would soon outclass and overpower American hegemony.  Who remembers that?  So, I would be careful about reading too much into Asia’s regionalism at this point.

What the U.S. has sought to spread around the world is a form of “democracy” identical to what is practiced at home: rule by the properties who want to maintain their domination.  Of course, when the “wrong kind” of people are able to gain power, the U.S. has struck out in an effort to overturn that result.  It happened in Guatemala and Iran and others in the 1950s and has been the case before and since.

Some believe that “democracy” is increasingly becoming a “big stick” used by the US to oppress countries with ideological differences. I think, most of those “ideological differences” ultimately have to do with imagined threats to the American and global economies.  Most of the countries that are under the American thumb do not have the military or economic power to oppose the United States.  I don’t think states should respect the people they govern and not violate that respect.  And note that the United States has never supported international social and health rights of individuals.

The New York Times cited a new analysis that “The United States and its allies accounted for a significantly outsize share of global democratic backsliding in the last decade,” and said that Western core elements like election fairness or judicial independence have weakened. Look.  Let’s be frank about this.  The United States has always been a “democracy” of the propertied with the vote largely limited to those who were not seen as a threat to the dominance of the (primarily white) holders of property and capital.

Domestically, US elections represent the effort to give voters the idea that they play a role in governing, but that process fragments their political power to the level of the individual and then aggregates it as the “will of the people.”  The backsliding represents an effort to sustain this dominance, with the help of not-too-subtle racism, in the face of a polity that is more and more non-white. 

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